Neil deGrasse Tyson: Atheist or Agnostic?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I'm often asked – and occasionally in an accusatory way – “Are you atheist?”  And it’s like, you know, the only “ist” I am is a scientist, all right?  I don’t associate with movements.  I'm not an “ism.”  I just  - I think for myself.  The moment when someone attaches to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you, and when you want to have a conversation they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association.  And that’s not the way to have a conversation.  I'm sorry.  It’s not.  I’d rather we explore each other’s ideas in real time rather than assign a label to it and assert, you know, what’s going to happen in advance.

So what people are really after is, what is my stance on religion or spirituality or God?  And I would say, if I find a word that came closest it would be agnostic.  Agnostic – the word dates from the 19th century – Huxley – to refer to someone who doesn’t know but hasn’t yet really seen evidence for it but is prepared to embrace the evidence if it’s there but if it’s not won’t be forced to have to think something that is not otherwise supported.

There are many atheists who say, “Well, all agnostics are atheists.”  Okay.  I'm constantly claimed by atheists.  I find this intriguing.  In fact, on my Wiki page – I didn’t create the Wiki page, others did, and I'm flattered that people cared enough about my life to assemble it – and it said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.”  I said, “Well that’s not really true.”  I said, “Neil deGrasse is an agnostic.”  I went back a week later.  It said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.” – again within a week – and I said, “What’s up with that?” and I said, “I have to word it a little differently.”  So I said, okay, “Neil deGrasse, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.” 

And some will say, well, that’s – "You’re not being fair to the fact that they’re actually the same thing."  No, they’re not the same thing, and I'll tell you why.  Atheists I know who proudly wear the badge are active atheists.  They’re like in your face atheist and they want to change policies and they’re having debates.  I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy to do any of that.  I'm a scientist.  I'm an educator.  My goal is to get people thinking straight in the first place, just get you to be curious about the natural world.  That’s what I'm about.  I'm not about any of the rest of this.  

And it’s odd that the word atheist even exists.  I don’t play golf.  Is there a word for non-golf players?  Do non-golf players gather and strategize?  Do non-skiers have a word and come together and talk about the fact that they don’t ski?  I don’t—I can’t do that.  I can’t gather around and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God.  I just don’t—I don’t have the energy for that, and so I . . . Agnostic separates me from the conduct of atheists whether or not there is strong overlap between the two categories, and at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims the title "scientist" above all other "ists." And yet, he says he is "constantly claimed by atheists." So where does he stand? "Neil deGrasse, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic."

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less